It feels like a gift. This well-made home. A rustic tangle of twigs and leaves tucked high in the bare magnolia. Rae can see it perfectly from her perch on the bed, bolstered by two full-body pillows. She is more tired than ever now. Her body chugs, lugging toward change, working its own internal building: the baby mostly formed. Now is just the waiting; three weeks or four; five, if the baby is late. Rae can feel her daughter pulsing around, pressing intently on her organs, urging her to make room.
The garage door opens, closes. Brian. Rae should get up, get ready for the solstice hike Brian insists on dragging her to, but the bed, the nest, the bare tree, and baby hold her. She wonders if the nest is lived in. Or if it is still in progress. Unfinished. Or leftover from last spring—the birds all flown. Rae wants to know which it is. The distinction—new or used—matters.
She pulls on her maternity jeans and slips on her boots. It’s easier to appear ready than to start a fight with Brian. Rae has mostly stopped talking to him, anyway. Still he thrusts his way into conversations with her—with sentences that circle back to nowhere.
"Good. You’re ready. Let’s go," Brian says from the doorway.
Rae is quiet on the winding drive up. She drank a glass of orange juice before they left mostly to feel the baby swirling around inside, maneuvering through what little room she has left. Rae, at least, is not alone.
Last winter when Brian took her on the solstice walk they had held hands. He had whispered the names of every barren berry bush and pointed out each variety of moss, making a poetic deal of the thinning yellow leaves of an aspen tree. Rae had loved the details. His precision. Last year’s coordinator, an older man with a high voice and glasses that kept fogging up, tolerated Brian’s insistence on pointing out everything—including a messy clump at the top of a eucalyptus where, he said, packrats glared down in a heap of beady eyes and skinny tails.
Rae hadn’t looked.
She didn’t want to see that side of nature.
Their naturalist for the solstice walk this year is a young woman who introduces herself as Cam. She has yellow-blond hair pulled back and full, flushed cheeks. She wears fingerless mittens and carries a well-worn navy blue backpack. When Rae and Brian first walk up, someone in the group asks if it is three o’clock.
"I don’t know," Cam answers, shaking her arms free of imaginary holds. "I don’t like having time any place on my body."
Brian nods and smiles in revelation.
Rae looks down at her bulbous belly. She is nothing if not a record of time. For 34 weeks her body has been counting—adding hours as the baby has added eyes and ears, skin and limbs.
Cam leads the group to a circle of redwoods. She tells everyone to witness the woods on hold, the woods in waiting: leaves lost and limbs bare, they curl up to capture the chill. Rae wants to close in alongside—close her eyes, her body, roll in tight. But already she feels herself opening, loosening, her muscles and bones spreading, ready to release.
"If you would like to participate in the solstice ritual close your eyes," Cam says. She asks everyone to consider how they will bring in light this winter. "When you are ready," she says, "take slow, mindful steps forward."
Brian blazes ahead. Rae stands still.
"Consider, also," Cam asks, "what you will allow to stay in darkness." With her eyes closed she leads the group in a song about the earth turning away from the sun, then she whispers the origin of the word solstice: "It means the sun is standing still." She freezes in place to highlight the definition.
"Tonight is the longest night of the year," Brian adds, stretching his arms out as wide as he can. Rae knew he would find some way to step in. Cam doesn’t seem to mind. A kid wants to know if this also makes it the shortest day of the year. Cam and Brian both nod—almost sadly—at the already sinking sun.
A little boy leaps forward. "I know a song about light!" he says, bursting into This Little Light of Mine. His stringy brown hair falls into his eyes as he sings. The group joins the song, forming a circle. Next to Cam, Brian belts out: "Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine." He still has his eyes closed. He looks good out here, Rae thinks, standing casually with his shoulders spread. Good in a natural way. Happy, even. Relaxed. Rae feels the baby sway to the music from the inside. The air is cool, but she is warm: all red heat and excess blood. Life within life.
"Shhh. Do you hear that?" Cam asks as she walks on. "A woodpecker."
Brian inches his way around the other hikers at the back of the group to stand at the very front. He doesn’t wait for Rae to catch up, doesn’t think of helping her maneuver around the stones in the muddy path or roots she could easily trip over. Instead he sidles up to Cam, listening to her explanation of the birds’ dwindling habitat. It is Cam who gets his warm whispery breath in her ear this year, his keen observations.
The baby flips hard on Rae’s bladder. There’s no way she can make it all the way around the lake. She motions to Brian that she is going to find a bathroom. Mouths: Be right back. He nods quickly, engrossed, unaware of her discomfort. It’s like the changes have nothing to do with him. He notices, of course he notices, holding Rae at arms' length, afraid to disturb anything (he says), kissing her the way a stranger says goodbye. He is more interested in the biology of the thing, relaying the physical details of pregnancy that in no way explain the new kind of love growing in Rae.
Rae is halfway to the nature center when she hears a bird call. It sings a long, low cry that turns into an urgent screeching. She stops walking. The baby pauses in accordance, shifting up, thumping into her ribs, off her bladder. The bird’s wail lures her, and she turns toward an unmarked trail, following the call.
The path is steep, hard going, but Rae keeps walking. There is no reason why she should—and no reason not to. It gets easier. The crisp air freezes her lungs but the burn feels good. The pulsing of the woods energizes her and she can feel the baby jamming to the soundtrack of her beating heart, echoing its own steady rhythm. The two of them linked this way for only a short time more.
Above Rae the bird cries on. From a clearing on the trail, she looks down and sees the solstice group. There are the kids, running ahead. There is the woman in a full-length down coat and cashmere scarf. And there is Brian. The dripping redwoods, the bright ferns suit him. He looks better here; it’s true. But it is more than that. He looks better next to Cam. His intense green eyes and her open, friendly smile fit perfectly. Another wife might turn away, but Rae is mesmerized by their obvious effortlessness. She watches Cam smile. Watches Brian lean in. Sees her laugh at whatever story he has scrounged up. Though Rae is instantly sure Brian doesn’t have to scrounge for Cam. Won’t depend on the old standbys. Skip even that damned tarantula tale: whole troupes he discovered one summer on the central coast. "Did you know these Nojoqui tarantulas once consumed an entire herd of cattle? Consumed! Eaten! Poor beasts wandered into the spiders’ migration path. And that was that! Can you imagine? 1869. No joke." Brian loves that story. The gruesome thought of it, the historical truth. "I know! Tarantulas! Devouring cows! A whole herd! Unbelievable."
Someone like Cam would not inspire that story. Cam will be able to pull something better, something (what? uplifting? revelatory?) from Brian. Something Rae never could. Between them there is a wordless restraint, a taut rope they pull like tug-of-war. Two years of marriage has only wrenched it tighter. Any give feels like giving in.
There is no way Rae can prepare a baby for this.
So she keeps walking.
The bird is close. Closer. Its cry echoes through the woods, shrieking louder as the clouds hunker down, crowding in. Rae looks up, but it is too foggy to see anything. The sky darkens and she jumps as two squirrels crash through a tangle of branches behind her. What am I doing here? she thinks. Alone in the compact woods. Not alone. There is the baby. Rae feels the baby move a limb across her middle. She can see the lump of its clenched hand pass over and she worries that they are lost. But she doesn’t want to look for Brian. The realization that there is no point in that settles like mist over her. She moves only to study a broken spider web, dripping with rain, strung between a tree stump and a Manzanita shrub next to her.
The bird cries on.
As sudden as it began, the call is over.
Rae hears a flap of wings as a whole flock passes over. Who knows what kind. They fly away without a second glance. The air feels thick with a pulsing energy; the birds’ cries absorbed by the forest, held by the world the way the sky holds the sun, the way a tree holds the nest, the way the baby is held within Rae.
She takes a deep breath. The baby pushes down, getting ready.
Nature knows what it is doing.
It’s only a matter of time.
Rae hikes down, careful not to slip, and ends up back on the main fire trail. Ahead of her she sees Cam and Brian, minus the rest of the group, walking so close together they could be touching hands.
On impulse, Cam turns around.
"Oh! We wondered what happened to you." She walks toward Rae.
Brian throws his arms up. "Where’d you go?"
"I heard a bird."
"It sounded like it needed help."
"Did you find it?" Cam is worried.
"What do you mean? Where were you?"
Brian glares at Rae. She stares back. There is a word here, Rae is sure. Some explanation that fits. Some string of a thought to weave into the silence between them. The old way back. Or a new way out. But before she can find it, Cam steps in, gushing:
"Well, thank God you’re okay." She points to the baby growing inside Rae. "See—there’s your little light right there!"
"Yeah," Brian sighs.
Rae has to laugh. They can both see that Cam is the only one glowing.